"Santa" at the Embassy; a Toast for Christ

Glad Tidings for Vatican City State

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, DEC. 18, 2008 (Zenit.org).- It seemed like Santa arrived early at the Italian embassy to the Holy See last Saturday. Although he came mid-morning instead of late at night and entered through the front gates rather than the chimney, the sight of Benedict XVI in his red and white attire brought good cheer and joy to all.

While this is not the first visit of a pontiff to the Palazzo Borromeo, home of the Italian embassy, this encounter marked the upcoming 80th anniversary of the Lateran Pacts signed on Feb. 11, 1929, as well as the 50-year mark of the revision of the concordat in 1984.

These treaties marked the first definition of Vatican City State as a sovereign entity and Italy was the first country to recognize the fledgling country.

Alongside Antonio Zanardi Landi, the Italian ambassador to the Holy See, who had the brilliant idea to invite the Pope to celebrate this occasion, stood several important members of the Italian cabinet. Franco Frattini, Italian minister of foreign affairs and Gianni Letta, the undersecretary of state to the presidency of the Council of Ministers, were also on hand to commemorate this historic event. (Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s daughter was getting married at the exact same moment, so he was not among those present.)

In his warm welcoming address, Undersecretary Letta pointed out that these high-level politicians had asked to attend out of “genuine and personal interest in relations with the Vatican as well as the highest respect and great consideration of the person of the Pope.”

Pope Benedict in his turn, took the occasion to discuss Church/state relations, a subject that has been dear to his heart this year. With clearly no hard feelings for the loss of the Papal States in 1870, the Holy Father declared that «the Church is very aware that […] the distinction between state and Church is a part of the fundamental structure of Christianity.»

Continuing the point, Benedict said, «This distinction and autonomy are respected and recognized by the Church, which is happy with them, considering them a great progress for humanity and a fundamental condition for its freedom and for fulfilling its universal mission of salvation among the peoples.»

This warm exchange of Christmas greetings took place in the elegant Palazzo Borromeo on the outskirts of the Borghese Park. The palace was a gift to the young St. Charles Borromeo from his uncle, Pope Pius IV Medici. In this setting, the young cardinal forged the early stages of his career, which would soon become an extraordinary model of both civic and pastoral leadership.

The Pope spent a few minutes praying in the recently restored chapel dedicated to the great Milanese saint, adding his prayers to those uttered 500 years earlier by Cardinal Borromeo. Undersecretary Letta described the meticulous and successful restoration of the chapel as an » exterior sign of the desire to give new impulse and depth to the relationship with the Apostolic See and the Church in Italy.»

While no carols were sung, the Italian embassy offered the Pope a brief musical interlude featuring the work of Mozart, a remarkable concession from the land that produced Verdi, Rossini and of course, Salieri.

And naturally, Christmas would not be complete without gifts. Ambassador Zanardi gave Pope Benedict a wooden crucifix dating from the late 15th century; a recent acquisition of the Italian state. Attributed by Dr. Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums, as a youthful endeavor of Michelangelo, the crucifix will join the other great works by the artist in the Vatican.

This friendly Italian encounter, fruit of a long and eventful history, warmed the Christmas cheer of a cold rainy Rome even more than eggnog and mulled wine.

* * *

Overindulgent and overspent

Advent, traditionally a time of preparation and purification, also holds its own particular opportunities for vice. As we make the dizzying rounds of Christmas cocktails, carols or parties we are faced with an ever-escalating array of treats, from sugar plums to smoked salmon.

In this minefield of culinary temptation, it seemed the moment to offer a thought or two on the sin of gluttony.

These musings occurred to me as I left the land of pasta and panettone last week to venture to Paris, food capital of the planet. Sparkling shop lights beckoned from afar, inviting passersby to admire rainbows of macaroons as pretty as tree ornaments or displays of cheeses as complete as any Neapolitan nativity set.

One shop window even displayed a single chocolate, resting on the soft silken bed of a jeweler’s box, like a fourth gift of the magi.

(Now if you are wondering if I saw any actual Nativity scenes, I saw only one, inside the gate of a churchyard, like an exotic specimen of fauna at the zoo, but that’s another story.)

The French would of course be horrified to find themselves associated with gluttony, as the word comes from the Latin ‘gluttire’ meaning to gulp down or swallow. French cooking is meant to be savored, each nuance of flavor appreciated; there is no super-size or all-you-can-eat in France.

Nor can it be said that excessive eating in France takes up the sparing rations of the populace. The multiplication of baguettes, clutched in the hands of the most weathered of men to children barely as tall as their beloved loaves, makes one marvel at the 18th century famine that sparked a revolution through the words “Let them eat cake!”

The first nagging feeling of approaching sin hit me as I left a joint in Chartres called the “Cheese Cave,” where after indulging in a muensterous amount of melted cheese, the uphill road to the cathedral seemed at times impossibly steep and onerous.

Checking the Catechism, I found little direction, but my old friend Dante turned on the alarm bells in Canto 23 of Purgatory, where he envisioned the gluttons as pale wraiths whose “eye sockets were caves agape […] and their skin so wasted that nothing but the gnarled bones gave it shape.»

But even Dante placed these poor overindulgent souls relatively high up in the ledges of Mount Purgatory and glanced with an empathetic eye upon its sinners. Clearly, I needed a meatier theological authority.

Thoughts of St. Thomas Aquinas accompanied me during my dinner at Taillevent, the restaurant I have longed to visit since I was a little girl. After all, the brilliant theologian spent many years at the Sorbonne and certainly knew his fine cuisine.

Even the padded booths and spacious tables recalled the rumor that St. Thomas’ place at table had to be rounded out to make room for his girth (although this has often been discounted as urban legend spread by more austere Franciscans).

During the six-course tasting menu, the meal ran the gamut of St .Thomas’ ways of committing gluttony, “Prae-propere, ardenter, studiose, nimis, laute,» or, too soon, too eagerly, too daintily, too much, too expensively.

I succumbed to the first form of gluttony moments after I sat down at the table and warm French breads were piled high on my plate. Sweet butter in one dish and salted in the other, the side plate soon became a first course.

Fois Gras ‘bonbons’ and scallops on watercress raced by like a blur, each extraordinary flavor replaced by another, as I ate ardently even with no flambé. I am sure the waiters dropped by with pleasantries and questions, but I was too rapt in my meal to notice.

The joy of haute cuisine lies in the variety of textures and flavors, so as I delicately balanced a morsel of duck daubed in balsamic sauce on a cube of candied rind with a tuft of cassis mousse floating above the arrangement, I wondered if this perhaps wasn’t what the saint and scholar meant by «too daintily.»

By the time desert rolled around, I knew «nimis» was my nemesis. I had no room left. Pastel macaroons, exquisite chocolates passed alongside the coffee, I alr
eady knew the torments of having overindulged.

And then bleary eyed and bursting at the seams, I squinted up to see the graceful waiter glide silently to my side with the bill. St. Thomas had won five to zero.

Just as I started to imagine myself as something out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting, or one of Dante’s starving repentants, I remembered the ultimate example of good living, Jesus.

He said, «The Son of Man came eating and drinking and they said, ‘Look, he is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is vindicated by her works» (Matthew 11:19).

I figure that if Christ’s first miracle was turning water into good wine and he enjoyed meat and fish, then he probably would have appreciated the fruit of chef Michel de Burgo’s labors at Taillevent.

And that is well worth a Christmas toast!

* * *

Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org.

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